Preventing IT job burnout using hybrid work models

MIT professor Erin Kelly’s study of IT employees shows that a sense of control is essential to avoiding post-pandemic overload

hybrid work model
Erin Kelly MIT

For five years, Erin Kelly studied job burnout among IT employees at a Fortune 500 company and proposed a “work redesign” that gave them the choice of working at home or in the office, full time or part time.

Kelly, a distinguished professor of working organization studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, and her co-author, Phyllis Moen, tell that story in their 2020 book, “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What to Do About It.”

Although the study took place before the pandemic, the insights are now highly relevant to companies (and IT organizations, in particular) that are now exploring office reopenings with hybrid work models that can organize in-office and remote work. In an interview, Kelly explained what she learned that can apply to today’s workplace challenges.

[Read also: The future of work is hybrid]

Q
In your study, you attribute IT job burnout to an imbalance between work demands and available resources and personal reserves. How did the pandemic affect those problems?
A

First, people had fewer boundaries around when they weren’t working during the pandemic. We lost all of our routines of going into the office and coming back. People were trying to function without those signals about what’s a work day and what’s not a work day.

Second, many people felt anxiety about what was happening with their company, and what was going to happen with their job. You could imagine many IT professionals thinking, “Are we headed into a huge recession? If so, I’d better demonstrate my commitment by doing absolutely anything that’s asked of me, and by being available at absolutely any moment.”

We know that this kind of insecurity-driven overload isn’t going to work in the long term.

Q
What lessons should we take from the shift in 2020 to remote work?
A

Managers have learned that it can work well to do at least partially remote work. Many people report that they enjoyed working at home quite a bit. But many employees are still feeling exhausted and looking for new jobs. There is a risk for companies if they don’t take a pause and say, “More flexible work worked when it had to, and now we have a chance to do it more deliberately.”

For many, many people, a mix is likely to be the best choice.

The point is the choice and the control and the support and feeling trusted. The point is not whether you spend two days or three days in the office.

Q
“Hybrid” work seems to be a popular idea. How can it best address issues of burnout and overload?
A

People benefit from greater choice and explicit support for their personal priorities. As flexibility becomes the new normal, it becomes acceptable to talk about overload in a thoughtful, deliberate way. The decision to work from home or in the office should be made by the team based on the specifics of the job, with work effectiveness guiding those decisions. They shouldn’t be made based on your manager’s comfort, or primarily on what your family needs. It’s about what’s feasible in this role.

The point is the choice and the control and the support and feeling trusted. The point is not whether you spend two days or three days in the office.

Q
What are some of the pitfalls?
A

It’s really important that whatever the work arrangements are, they’re fully legitimate. If you’re in an organization where remote work is allowed, but you face career penalties for it, that is an organizational problem. That’s something that has to be addressed by HR and performance evaluation. That’s not a problem with flexible work schedules.

When people were individually negotiating for flexibility, it was seen as an accommodation. Gender inequality was being reinforced, because who’s going to seek out the flexibility even when there’s a career penalty? Often, it was moms.

It’s time to reset the new normal for people of all genders, ages, and life stages so that flexibility is available without causing problems for people’s careers.

Q
Many companies are downsizing or walking away from office space. What’s the impact on employee workload and burnout?
A

Closing offices is a real temptation. Those cost savings are obvious. But our research finds that employee sense of control is a critical part of getting the benefits for retention, for well-being, for job satisfaction, and for engagement. If you’re sent home because the office closes, I would not expect to see the benefits we saw when people chose to be home part time.

If companies go down that path, they have to be even more deliberate about cultivating a culture where people feel connected. The IT professionals that I studied love the thrill of solving a problem, but they also get a sense of meaning from solving a problem with and for certain people or certain science. A sense of support and a connection, as well as a sense of meaning, are important for all kinds of workers.